When the Subaltern Spoke

In the mid-20th century, social history, by which we mean social historiography, saw a major alteration in its focus. It shiftedaway from 19th century Marxist interpretations of a form that concentrated on ‘society’ and the lives of workers who had been underrepresented in favour of a small elite. Its new focus looked instead toward specific historically underrepresented minorities. This approach has been termed neo-Marxism.

But what caused this shift in focus? I argue, it was the influence of ‘history from below’ which forced social historians to focus on minorities. This is because history from below gave a stage to real individual ‘commoners’, they were no longer one hegemonic group as theorized by academics. This revealed the hypocrisy at the heart of 19th century Marxist historiography, being that it was the top-down, dictatorial version of history it claimed to rebuke, generalising what ‘the people’ believed in.

Post-imperial subjects were one of the most influential historical minorities to facilitate the rise of ‘history from below’ and thus the wider shift in social history in the mid-20th century. Their sheer numbers being partly why; 145 countries gained independence in the 20th century. Additionally, their collective influence was added to by the proximity of their releases from imperial historiography (a few decades). They spoke loudly and together.

The popularisation of the term ‘subaltern’ amongst social historians is a testament to the relationship between post-imperial history, history from below, and social history.The term was first coined by Italian Marxist, Antonio Gramsci, in 1926, but only became significant to the world of ‘history from below’ in 1988 when the post-imperialist historian, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak revived the term. She defined the subaltern as “persons who are socially, politically and geographically outside the hegemonic power structure”.

In Spivak’s essay, ‘Can the subaltern speak?’ and in her subsequent text; ‘Towards a Critique of Post-Colonial Reason’ she explains that, although the metaphor used is one of minorities ‘without a voice’, a more accurate appraisal would be of ‘a deafened hegemonic ear’. Meaning that minorities had always been expressing their views, they just weren’t being listened to. The importance here is that subalterns have agency in these new histories, they do not simply act at the behest of their oppressors and fade away when not doing so. They are autonomous and can act independently of elites. This is a form inherent to ‘history from below’.

We can see from this how history from below led to a focus on historical minorities within social history, and Post-imperial history shows us one of the reasons why history from below affected social history in this way.

Author / Publisher: Louis Lorenzo

First Published: 05th of April 2017

Last Modified: 05th of April 2017

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